One in an occasional series on nearby getaways, seen in a new way.
CAMBRIDGE — “Grab your passport! We’re heading to the People’s Republic of Cambridge,” our companion quipped. Cambridge is known for a lot of things — the home of MIT and Harvard, it’s a famously quirky burg with a decidedly left-wing political persuasion — but does it make the grade as an outdoorsy weekend getaway? We were about to find out.
Even outdoor rec has an offbeat vibe in Cambridge. “Check it out — we’re kayaking past the Kayak.com office!” we shouted to a fellow paddler, as we maneuvered our vessel into Broad Canal after a couple of hours on the Charles River. You can even paddle to a shopping mall, CambridgeSide (formerly the CambridgeSide Galleria), if so inclined. Recommended for experienced paddlers only, since you’ll have an audience. We executed a not-so-graceful kayak exit in front of a couple of dozen mall-goers. (It’s not that easy to belly-roll from a wiggly boat onto a 2-foot-tall concrete pier, people!)
The inspiration for a getaway in Cambridge came when we learned that a Kendall Square/East Cambridge hotel, the Kimpton Marlowe (www.hotelmarlowe.com) offered outdoor toys — bicycles and kayaks — for their guests to use. There are also stand-up paddleboards, in-room yoga mats, plus yoga or HIIT sessions on the in-room TV led by Candace Cabrera Tavino of Yoga By Candace. (It requires some contortionist moves to follow yoga poses on a hotel TV from the floor, but it’s doable.) You can also view the classes in the fitness center. Plus, the hotel is home to a restaurant, Bambara Kitchen & Bar, that we had heard good things about but never tried.
With so much available onsite and nearby, you can park your car in the garage and leave it, using a bike (or your feet) to get around. You don’t even have to drive to Cambridge, depending on where you live; you can take the T and rely on the hotel’s freebie bikes, or a Bluebike, for transportation.
But could we actually capture that feel-good weekend getaway vibe so close to home? We’d dedicate two days to answer that question, staying over on a Saturday night. (You can always spring for two nights and start your weekend on Friday, but it’s not required; the hotel doesn’t have a two-night minimum. And, you can bring your dog for free. Pooches are all over the place.)
Biking and bucatini
We brought our own bikes along, but the Kimpton Marlowe had plenty — 16 bicycles — on hand. (We’d advise bringing helmets, though.) The biking here is grand. There’s a paved, multi-use path that skirts the river, with glory views of the Boston skyline, but there’s also this: On Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 18, weather permitting, the DCR and the City of Cambridge close Memorial Drive to traffic from Western Avenue to Gerry’s Landing, creating “Riverbend Park “for pedestrians and cyclists. Best. Decision. Ever.
Riding right down the middle of Memorial Drive on a gorgeous day, alongside the boat-dotted Charles River, is a blast. Locals have caught onto this — we saw in-line skaters (including adorable toddlers on wheels), kids on scooters, cyclists galore, walkers, parents pushing strollers, folks on recumbent bikes, skateboarders, and even a duo on Segway scooters rolling along. Street lights are programmed for bike crossings.
By noontime, we were ready for a stop at Area Four (www.areafour.com) for salad and pizza. They offer a breakfast pizza for brunch, which sounds like a tasty mess, but we went with our go-to: the shaved Brussels sprouts and kale salad with hazelnuts (that lemon vinaigrette!), $13, and the fabulous Prosciutto Americano pizza with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and baby arugula, drizzled with spicy honey (small, $21; large, $28). Bonus: outdoor seating and bike racks. Sharing these was the perfect plan, since we couldn’t bring home leftovers while riding bikes.
We’d like to tell you we hit several museums that afternoon, including the Museum of Science, practically next door, but we’d be lying. Instead, we slipped into CambridgeSide for nostalgia’s sake — to experience the wonderful normalcy of being in a shopping mall again. It still smells the same (popcorn + perfume) and despite ongoing construction, it was filled with people. There’s also a new attraction called Choco Town (www.thechocotown.com), billed as “an immersive chocolate village experience,” with chocolate, gummy bears, lots of Instagram-friendly motifs, and candy samples. If that doesn’t scream “vacation,” what does?
Back at the hotel, adult treats were waiting — they host a daily happy hour with wine from 5 to 6 p.m. We had helmet hair and were slightly sweaty, but — Cambridge! It’s a casual place. The hotel’s Lobby Bar has a brandy focus. Our next event, post-shower, was dinner at Bambara Kitchen & Bar. There’s outdoor seating in the courtyard, but we settled into an indoor table, the better to hear a singer belt out a very good version of “Send in the Clowns.” Chef Adam Resnick’s menu is short, but offers plenty of variety. Our server recommended the house-made bucatini with braised short rib and puttanesca sauce ($25) so we went with that, along with an order of grilled salmon with deliciously plump couscous in a citrusy chermoula ($33.) And who can resist fried calamari? There would be no post-dinner yoga session after this feast.
Day two: Love that dirty water
On our second day, the river was calling, so we high-tailed it to the front desk to arrange for a kayak. Happily, there were two singles available, so we claimed them. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and you can keep them out as long as you like — good news for early birds, not-so-good news for everyone else. And — a SUP? Even when you’re really excellent at stand-up paddling, you’re bound to get wet. We remember when you’d get sent straight to the hospital after a dunk in the Charles, so . . . no. “We don’t really advise it,” a front desk clerk said.
If you miss out on snagging a kayak at the hotel (they typically have six on hand), Paddle Boston (www.paddleboston.com) is an option. They have plenty of boats and you can walk up, but you’ll pay $30 for a single kayak ($45 for a double) for 90 minutes max. The price goes up to $54 and $75, respectively, for a full day. For Kimpton Marlowe guests, the hotel’s kayaks are free — well, sort of; guests are required to pay a $20 nightly ‘guest amenity fee’ per room. That’s definitely a better deal, provided you can get one when you want one.
Paddling the Charles is a lesson in contrast. You’ll see cormorants galore, and pass by an actual wetland island, but the city is always present. Noisy helicopters and duck boat guides cracking bad jokes over a loudspeaker disrupt the reverie. But wow, does Boston look lovely from the river, and you get those peaceful moments where it seems like just you, other paddlers, and sailboats skimming along the Charles. If you’ve never done this, do it. You’ll appreciate Boston and Cambridge more for the experience.
For lunch, we decided on a dumpling place we remembered fondly from years past — and according to Yelp, it still existed. Or did it? After wandering around for 45 minutes, to the exact spot where memory (and Yelp) said it would be — no luck. We kept walking, until we got lost amid a ghost town of darkened office buildings. Perhaps that tiny dumpling joint had morphed into one of those gigantic lab spaces with vague names that are ubiquitous here? Happily, we made it back to familiar streets with eateries aplenty, including Shy Bird, Shabu & Mein, Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, and even Dumpling Daughter. Dumplings!
Cambridge is no Kauai, but…
So, was the experiment a success? Cambridge definitely came through in the outdoor recreation category — we biked, paddled, and walked along the river and even discovered some pocket parks along the way. The hotel we chose made it easy to enjoy it all; bellmen transport the kayaks to Canal Park, and set you up with bicycles. (There are bike racks available if you BYO.) The food was good, with plenty of choices, especially if you venture out of the neighborhood (we didn’t). And for those who like to mix it up some — a museum here, a paddle there — the city comes up aces. Cambridge may not be Kauai, but we’ll take it. Because where else can you eat dumplings on the riverbank at the Salt & Pepper Bridge?
If You Go: The Kimpton Marlowe Hotel’s 237 guestrooms and suites were recently updated, with touches like blue-wave carpeting that echo the Charles River. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of the Boston skyline, the hotel courtyard, and the Charles River. Summer rates from $349; $20 guest amenity fee includes $10 daily food & beverage credit in Bambara, use of summer and winter gear (kayaks, sleds, snowshoes, etc.), and other extras. www.hotelmarlowe.com. For more information: www.cambridgeusa.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org